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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Louisiana Downs Preview

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Making tracks toward a first-class facility, bigger purses

For some 40 years, if it was a weekend, friends and family knew where to find Stan Stava.

Louisiana Downs was his home away from home.

“The races were quality races,” Stava said.

“We had some really good trainers and jockeys back then. We had some big races through the years that brought in some big names. It was almost what you would call a first-class operation. It was really something.”

But a few years ago, Stava started spending less time at the track. Part of the reason was that those quality races became few and far between. Also, the track property stayed in need of repair and updating.

Now, Stava hardly goes at all. “I would rather take the time to drive four hours (to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.), go up there on a Saturday, stay overnight, and come back on a Sunday than drive 10 miles to Bossier, a place that didn’t care whether I was there or not. That’s how it really felt.”

Stava’s story is not breaking news to Kevin Preston. The new owner of Louisiana Downs has heard the frustration of long-time Louisiana Downs patrons. Their frustration follows years of corporate track ownership. And Preston is determined to do — and spend — to revive the track.

“While I’m not sure I can get it back to how it used to be, I’m damn sure going to try to get it as close as possible,” Preston said.

The 51-year-old Preston, who also owns Magnolia Bluffs Casino in Natchez, Miss., bought Louisiana Downs (the race track and adjoining casino) for $22 million earlier this year. Since then, the track has made some cosmetic improvements. But Preston’s bigpicture plan is just leaving the starting gate.

“The big push right now is to create that Wow! factor,” Preston said. “Those experiences that people are going to come for, while increasing revenue and purses.”

Preston’s goal is to make Louisiana Downs a place of affordable fun and entertainment for Mom, Pop and the kids.

“We’re trying to create more of a family experience, where you can come out, not spend a lot of money, watch the horses and get that special family time … that family experience that we’ve all gotten away from over the last several years, with the phone and everything else. If we can create that type of experience for families, that will set us apart.”

That “family experience” includes concerts, permanent playground equipment for the kids and good food.

“We’re bringing in two restaurants (including an upper-end restaurant) — maybe a third,” Preston said. “We’re also going to be doing a PJ’s Coffee as a graband-go inside. Merging both the racing and gaming sides together is important. We will have a permanent sports book shortly — we have a temporary one right now. More importantly, we’re not going to get where we need to unless we increase the purses.”

Horse owners follow the money. At any race track, the bigger the purses (the money that owners can win), the better the horses. A percentage of revenue from Louisiana’s new sportsbooks is dedicated to increasing purses. In addition, Historical Horse Racing (HHR) machines will be placed in the Downs’ off-track betting parlor in Mound, La. (and future OTBs). Those are expected to increase revenue, which will go toward purses.

Preston is also bringing back Louisiana Downs’ signature race, the Super Derby. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 10. A Grade I race from 1983 to 2001, the Derby was recognized as one of racing’s premier events, featuring the best of the best horses, owners, trainers and jockeys. Declining purses eventually reduced the race to Grade 3 status. The last Derby was run in 2019.

“It puts us back on the map, and shows that this new ownership group is serious about racing, and about bringing this track back to life,” Preston said of the Derby’s return. “One of the things we’ve seen the last couple of months is that more and more trainers and owners are reaching out to us who have never reached out to us. I think the buzz is out there.

We’ve just got to make sure we follow through on our plans, and do the things necessary to keep people’s interest up and keep them coming back to Louisiana Downs.”

While Preston is working on improving the horse racing side, he hasn’t forgotten about the casino.

“We just purchased additional slot machines,” Preston said. “Those will be coming in within four to six weeks, which will be great. They’re another way to increase revenue, and that slot revenue is going to increase the purses. A lot of our machines, unfortunately, are 15-20 years old, and we can’t even find parts for them anymore, so that’s going to be important for us.”

Louisiana Downs begins its thoroughbred meet Saturday, May 7, and runs through Sept. 27.

To learn more about Louisiana Downs, you may visit www.ladowns.com.

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